"It's a black art love story," explains the poet, professor, essayist, and newly minted memoirist Elizabeth Alexander on a balmy October afternoon. Her book The Light of the World, which was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, tells the story of her whirlwind romance with her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, and his sudden death in 2012.
Before beginning The Light of the World, I was aware that Alexander's husband had passed away but wasn't aware of any of the details. Alexander is a giant in the literary world (and the world- world, really). I was admittedly nervous to even begin the book, especially because I am at the beginning of my own love story. I couldn't imagine losing my partner, much less losing them so suddenly.
In the early pages of the memoir, she writes, "Tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love ... loss is not felt in the absence of love." I arrived at the text expecting an unattainable level of sorrow but was pleasantly greeted with a grand gesture of love, courage, and kindness.
That said, I did struggle to complete the book. I'd read twenty or so pages and would cry on and off for a few days. In fact, before I could properly begin our interview, I tearfully explained to Elizabeth that I'd postponed our meeting because I simply couldn't stop weeping. I felt bad betraying her love story, but it was the truth.
Months later, I think about my confession and wonder if it was selfish. Was it wrong to center the conversation on my own emotions? Perhaps. Either way, Elizabeth, a warrior for the soul, sat down with me to discuss her writing process, her love of Ficre, and where she was one year after the memoir's publication.
Kimberly Drew: Let's begin at the end. In the afterword you write: "I would remind myself as I wrote between sentences I was alive." Could you talk about what this means to you?
Elizabeth Alexander: [This] was a journey with a book unlike any other. In part because when you write poems or when you write criticism, people don't come to it for the same reasons. People come for the story in a memoir, people come for the persona in a memoir. People find their poems and essays on black culture in other ways and for other beautiful, beautiful reasons.
I love that it is [about] black love and it is black love in art. It's black love with the companion of music and paintings and beauty and food and words and the depth and riches of global black culture. Anybody can share that, but I love that it's a black art love story.
KD: I had a lot of difficulty finishing The Light of the World because I couldn't stop crying. I was wondering if you could talk more about your process and how you were propelled to write the text.
EA: It was time out of time, it was its own weather. I wouldn't exactly say that it was a fugue state, but it was certainly a state unlike any other. I did not have a lot of my usual self-consciousness and was thinking on a lot of tracks at the same time and placing things where I think they belonged. I was just living, existing, moving, second to second to second to second. It was actually a very powerful state to be in.
One thing that I did know self-consciously was that I would not always be in this time and space. You know, as I've said before, I was writing to know that I was alive. I stayed alive because I will and am a person who does — and also because I had children, so that was what I had to do. I wasn't writing to stay alive, but writing knowing what I was experiencing and moving through.